Exclusive: Ukraine Crisis Could Lead to Nuclear War Under New Strategy

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As U.S.-Russia tensions rise over Ukraine, a new strategy could make nuclear war more likely. Photograph by Getty

Three thousand American troops are headed to Europe, with thousands more on stand-by in response to the Kremlin's threats against Ukraine. President Joe Biden is pondering further actions—and as U.S.-Russia tensions rise, a new American nuclear war plan, previously unknown, lurks in the background.

For the first time, the war plan fully incorporates non-nuclear weapons as an equal player. The non-nuclear options include the realm of cyber warfare, including cyber attacks on the basic workings of society like electrical power or communications. Rather than strengthen deterrence, the emergence of countless options and hidden cyber attack schemes weakens deterrence, obscures the nuclear firebreak and makes escalation more likely. Why? Because an adversary such as Russia can be confused about where preparations for nuclear war start, and whether a multi-domain attack is merely a defense or the makings of a first strike.

It isn't the war plan of yesterday with hair-trigger alerts, bolts from the blue and global destruction. Instead, the standalone nuclear option has become the integration of many options: nuclear, conventional and unconventional, defensive as well as offensive, "non kinetic" as well as "kinetic."

President Biden alluded to this widened spectrum of warfare on February 7 when he warned that if Russia crossed the Ukraine border, the United States would bring an end to Nord Stream 2, the natural gas pipeline connecting Russia to Germany, and one that the Russian energy economy depends on.

"There will be no longer [sic] a Nord Stream 2," the president said. "We will bring an end to it." When pressed, all Biden would say is, "I promise you, we'll be able to do it."

He was referring to cyberattacks, experts say. This little-understood American capacity to wage offensive cyber warfare is central to the new nuclear war plan. "We will take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy," President Biden wrote in his first National Security Strategic Guidance last March. A potential cyber-attack on the operations that regulate the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, for example, is now an integral part of the escalation "ladder."

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The Ukraine crisis could lead to nuclear war under a new U.S. strategy. As tensions with Russia rise, U.S. troops deploy for Europe from Pope Army Airfield at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on February 3, 2022 Allison Joyce/AFP via Getty Images

In the eyes of nuclear strategists, this broad menu is a more effective way to thwart any peer adversary, giving the president options short of nuclear war. But experts also warn that the new flexibility might confuse an adversary; a series of non-nuclear moves might come to look like the opening salvos of a first strike, provoking the very thing that is being prevented.

In the new nuclear war plan, integration of all military and non-military weapons in the American armory is labeled the new deterrent. Planners seek to debilitate and immobilize any enemy rather than physically destroy it. The dividing line between what is nuclear and what is conventional has been blurred more than ever. And with that, "strategic stability"—the singular objective of preventing the use of nuclear weapons, which has kept nuclear weapons sheathed for more than 75 years—has been made obsolete. Russia is not likely to invade Ukraine, but if a military confrontation unfolds, it would be the first test of this new approach to war.

Last June, the United States and Canada carried out their largest war game since the end of the Cold War, moving more than 100 fighter aircraft and their supporting units to nine bases in northern Canada, Alaska and Greenland. The objective of the exercise was to defend the northern approaches to North America from a mock Russian bomber attack.

Over eight days, the interceptor pilots each commanded their own earthly battlestars equipped with the latest long-range radars, powerful electronic warfare accessories, and air-to-air missiles. By creating a tightly woven network of sensors and shooter, Moscow's bombers were detected and destroyed, an entire leg of the Russian nuclear arsenal nullified.

The oddly timed "Amalgam Dart" exercise, held long before tensions over Ukraine escalated, wasn't your normal air defense drill. In contrast to Cold War practice, where interceptors operated close to the American border and each fighter was more or less on their own, this exercise had aircraft operating over thousands of miles in a remote part of the globe. American F-22 Raptors stealth fighter jets came within 200 miles of the Russian border in the high Arctic. Even over long ranges, pilots were able to talk to each other and aircraft received intelligence data from ground stations and satellites. In the background, cyber and space warriors further worked their own magic, contributing to the whole.

This integration of multiple domains is one of the hallmarks of modern high-end warfare. In addition to increasingly lethal air defenses, today's integrated capabilities include conventional long-range weapons, missile defenses, cyber warfare, space operations, and even commandos operating behind enemy lines.

As the techniques of integration have been perfected over two decades of conflict since 9/11, conventional and digital weaponry have also become part of the nuclear war plan, one that shifted from nuclear weapons only to nuclear-and-conventional today; from a model of one deterrent working through the threat of overwhelming force, to more and more flexible and adaptable responses which integrate a "whole of government" contribution, including psychological warfare and deception as well as the inclusion of a series of highly secret capabilities.

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Ukrainian soldiers on the frontline with the Russia-backed separatists in the Donetsk region on February 1, 2022. Ukraine's President Volodomyr Zelenskyy announced his country would boost its forces by 100,000 in the next three years. ANATOLII STEPANOV/Getty

To codify these changes, on April 30, 2019, the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) issued Change 1 to CONPLAN 8010, "Strategic Deterrence and Force Employment," a major modification of a war plan that was first issued nearly a decade ago. The new plan—over 1,100 pages long—refocuses emphasis on "great power competition" and the four big threats: Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. Russia remains and is once again the most challenging adversary, with its equivalent nuclear arsenal and an overtly aggressive posture towards Europe and the United States. Like the U.S., Russia also has "novel weapons" that give it "the capability to unilaterally escalate at any level of violence, across any domain, into any geographic location ... and to do so at a time of their choosing," says Maj. Gen. Ferdinand B. Stoss, director of plans for U.S. Strategic Command.

Hans Kristensen, a nuclear weapons expert at the Federation of American Scientists, discovered the existence of the new war plan through the Freedom of Information Act. It was previously unknown outside the government, and even there, the war plan itself is highly compartmentalized, its totality known to only a few hundred.

"The Biden administration is going to issue a 'Nuclear Posture Review' in the coming weeks that is expected to say very little," he tells Newsweek. The reason, Kristensen says, is that the composition of the nuclear arsenal—bombers, land-based missiles, and submarines—is not expected to change, with the current $550 million modernization programs continuing with only minor modifications.

"As we await the Nuclear Posture Review, the irony is that nuclear weapons are now inseparable from the entire spectrum of strategic effects," Kristensen says. Instead, he says, Washington needs to produce a "strategic posture review" that acknowledges these changes, and one that particularly examines whether all of these capabilities enhance strategic stability and peace or undermine it.

"Nuclear stability still rests on the Cold War model of invulnerable nuclear submarines that cannot be destroyed in a surprise Russian first strike," Kristensen says. "But war planning today is increasingly integrated to provide more non-nuclear options, options that could be seen by Russia as provocative and even the makings of an American first strike"—even if it begins without nuclear weapons.

"This integration of nuclear and non-nuclear, and the focus on 'effects' rather than destruction," Kristensen says, "erodes the firewall between conventional and nuclear warfare and creates more pathways to escalation."

Though it is not widely known, U.S. nuclear strategy today is no longer centered around the threat of a one-time massive American retaliatory nuclear strike, the severity of which is perceived as so great that it deters Russia (or any other adversary) from attacking in the first place. The strategy today, adopted in the Obama administration, is to have the flexibility to assess the purpose of an attack (that is, is it a massive strike or a limited strike or even an accident) before acting. The war plan today is modeled around the ability to absorb any first strike—to "ride it out," as war planners put it, including blunting it with defenses and secret capabilities—before deciding on the nature and size of the American response.

This new strategy provides the president with more decision-making options; automatic nuclear retaliation is no longer the only option. Implementing the new strategy requires bombers and submarines that can survive through dispersal and then through deception. Air, missile, cyber, space defenses are seen as protecting this survival against further detection, to preserve a highly flexible decision-making structure, and disrupt Russian offensive methods. Timing and flexibility are the key.

When he was commander of STRATCOM, Gen. John Hyten hinted at this new approach, saying that when he took control at the Omaha-based command, what surprised him most "was the flexible options that [were] in all the plans ..."

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U.S. service members write letters as they wait at the Pope Army Airfield before deploying to Europe at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on February 3, 2022. The US plans to deploy 3,000 troops to fortify NATO forces in Eastern Europe amid fears Russia could invade Ukraine. Allison Joyce/AFP via Getty Images

"If something bad happens in the world," Hyten said, "and there's a response and I'm on the phone with the secretary of defense and the president ... I actually have a series of very flexible options from conventional all the way up to large-scale nukes that I can advise the president on to give him options on what he would want to do."

In the new war plan, these are called "Directed Planning Options" (DPOs); they were previously called "adaptive" options. They are a menu of capabilities that include nuclear attack, but also a wide variety of other attacks to handle every scenario from terrorist threats involving weapons of mass destruction to responding to massive space and cyberspace attacks upon the United States. Regarding Russia, there is much more attention paid to non-nuclear and non-kinetic attacks on the Kremlin national leadership and disruption of the means of Russian decision-making to receive early warning and to communicate.

These DPOs not just exist to respond to specific scenarios but also accommodate new capabilities—not necessarily "weapons"—some of them highly compartmented at classifications above Top Secret. Altogether they make up an increasingly five-dimensional threat to Russia—air, land, sea, cyber and space. Experts say that in a crisis, the capability could easily cross the line between conventional and nuclear and between information attack and real attack, with the unintentional result of making crisis posturing (and even the preparation of defenses) look a lot like the early stages of a nuclear first strike threat. That might provoke the very thing that all of the flexibility is built to avoid, the very vulnerability of the force that pushes a "use it or lose it" mentality.

A former STRATCOM planner, who spoke to Newsweek on background because he is not authorized to discuss classified matters, describes DPOs as "executable," which in everyday English means they're not just theoretical or aspirational, but are prepared and implementable. The capability to "readily execute" DPOs, the planner says, requires a high degree of readiness, especially in a crisis.

"Nuclear war is no longer necessarily going to start with a bolt-out-of-the-blue missile attack," the planner says. "It's more likely to look like a coordinated attack on command and control structures—from early warning to communications to decision-making—to impede a Russian attack or at the same time to make whatever American attack is planned, of course defined as a retaliation, more likely to achieve."

The planner thinks that the drift from a solely nuclear to a "multi-domain" war plan, while intended as a way to give the president more "decision space" and to lessen the likelihood of nuclear war, actually threatens overall strategic stability. "Many of the DPOs in 8010 [the war plan] cover Phase Zero," the planner says—the period of the six-phased war plan called "shaping the environment."

"These are capabilities that are already in play that might also communicate a readiness on the part of the U.S. to actually strike first, even if not with nuclear weapons."

The planner points to an Air Force military exercise, held in January, where two B-52 bombers flew to a rural airfield in Arkansas, practicing an "agile combat employment" concept where all bombers would disperse to a larger number and wider variety of airfields to increase the survivability of the overall force against any Russia attack. American bombers started to practice such a concept in 2019 and it is now integrated into the nuclear war plan.

"It's not just survival," the planner says. "This is also the means of extended war-fighting": being able to survive a Russian first strike with a large number of deliverable weapons. Within a few hours, pairs of bombers can land at remote locations, refuel, receive repairs, resupply and be back in the air before Russia can pinpoint their location.

During another one of these agile military exercises held in December, B-52 bombers hopscotched to an airbase in western Canada called Shilo, again demonstrating rapid dispersal to a growing list of remote locations. One of the officers involved in the exercise told Air Force Magazine that the whole point was "challenging predictability."

"Challenging predictability" and putting increasing emphasis on flexibility, the STRATCOM planner responds, "builds ambiguity regarding American intentions that is the very antithesis of deterrence as we have thought about it for the past fifty years."

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Airmen from Barksdale Air Force Base unload a C-130 Hercules aircraft as part of Agile Combat Employment at the Arkansas Aeroplex, Blytheville, Arkansas, Jan. 12, 2022. The ACE concept focuses on responsiveness, rapid deployment, versatility and maneuverability, aimed to create an expanse of new strategic options and reduce the risk to Air Force personnel. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class William Pugh)

The planner is not arguing that the United States should go back to Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD): he is pointing out that this new integration demands serious attention. "The integration of non-nuclear capabilities has opened up new possibilities," he says—more credible interception of Russian bombers and missiles, destruction or negation of Russian satellites, electronic warfare against Russian navigation systems, disruption of Russian command circuits and electrical power, even special operations to kill or capture Russian civilian and military leaders—"all of which facilitates, in the eyes of decision-makers, the notion that small-scale nuclear attacks can occur without further escalation to all-out nuclear war."

The U.S. nuclear arsenal today—that is, those warheads that are available for immediate use—consists of a triad of approximately 1,650 nuclear weapons: 950 on ballistic missile submarines, 400 on land-based missiles, and 300 on bombers. The land-based missiles are deployed in individual hardened silos across five states in the American west. The 950 warheads are deployed on 12 submarines, all but one of which has missiles loaded and counted as deployed. The B-2 and B-52 bombers are at three domestic bases. Another 100 or so nuclear bombs are forward deployed in Europe.

While these numbers have dramatically declined since the height of the Cold War, conventional weapons with direct integration into the nuclear war plan have ballooned. The addition of credible "strategic shooters" that are conventional rather than nuclear, Kristensen says, "is the most single dramatic development since the Gulf War" in 1991.

The premier conventional strike weapon in this category is the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, which can stealthily travel over 700 miles (or in its "extreme" range model, up to 1,200 miles) and can destroy almost any unhardened target. The Air Force and Navy are planning to purchase 10,000 JASSMs and though the missiles are only deployed on B-1 bombers today (which have otherwise been 'denuclearized"), eventually every fighter airplane will be able to carry the weapons. Air Force experts say that more than one-third of the targets in the "nuclear" war plan can in theory be destroyed with conventional weapons. A future of JASSM, together with the Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile, opens up the prospects of an omnidirectional threat to Russia and a secret change to the nuclear calculus.

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A Msta-S-M2 self-propelled howitzer is seen under the command of Russia's Western Military District, which borders Ukraine, as additional units were sent to artillery forces on February 1. Russian Ministry of Defense

Behind the nuclear and conventional arsenals are additional non-quantifiable and sometimes highly ephemeral weapons, including cyber and space weapons, as well as other weapons and techniques, some of them highly secret. The cyber domain was given an expanded role in the nuclear war plan in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, and in the 2018 National Cyber Strategy, cyber deterrence was added as a formal part of the strategic deterrent. While this is often thought of as strictly defensive—protecting U.S. command lines—the incorporation into the nuclear war plan now includes a healthy dose of offensive options, outlined in Directed Planning Options and compartmented plans, equal "domain" partners to nuclear and conventional weapons.

"The challenge in the future will be to understand how these weapons actually augment and even supplant nuclear weapons," the former STRATCOM planner says. "The danger," he says, "is that while the numbers of nuclear weapons remains constrained by arms control treaties and the composition of the nuclear triad remains essentially the same in the future, advances in non-nuclear elements of deterrence quietly begin to be more and more influential, even as the effect is not widely understood."

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A Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 Hornet fighter jet flies over Northwest Territories, Canada, June 14, 2021, during Ex. Amalgam Dart 2021. CANR NORAD

In September 1961, President John F. Kennedy was aghast when he was given a detailed briefing about the nuclear war plan. It was all or nothing, and in even the best-case scenario, hundreds of millions of people were projected to die. He ordered the Strategic Air Command to come up with more options and to move away from attacking civilian targets. That led to a 50-year effort to produce a nuclear war plan that would eliminate the necessity of use-it-or-lose-it, while at the same time threatening enough damage that the prospect would make any attacker cautious. Up until the digital age, that uncomfortable balance was maintained. Now, for the first time, "damage" can no longer be described as nuclear only, and the effectiveness of however-many nuclear weapons is called into question, given defenses and new methods of attack.

The new nuclear war plan is thus today neither segregated from the rest of warfare (or of military posturing) nor is it a stable edifice. If a crisis like Ukraine escalated to military confrontation, the ramp-up might be obscured behind largely invisible and even secret capabilities. And, in the name of readiness and flexibility, they might have their own automaticity, a sort of move-it-or-lose-it format that would provoke its own responses. Missiles and submarines might provide the picture of stability while all around, the wires, airwaves and far reaches of space quiver with society-destroying powers.

William M. Arkin is senior national security correspondent for Newsweek and author of numerous books on nuclear weapons and strategy, including "S.I.O.P.: The Secret U.S. Plan for Nuclear War." Marc Ambinder, a nuclear scholar, is also author of "The Brink: President Reagan and the Nuclear War Scare of 1983." Together, they write the Substack newsletter The Secrets Machine.

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